I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook. When we meet the main character, Oona, her father has died and she, her mother and her brother Freddy have brought their cat, Zook, to the vet because he is sick. We learn from Oona that her father was a masterful storyteller and we quickly see she has inherited his gift and love of language.
In order to help calm Freddy’s fears over Zook’s condition, Oona tells him about the old saying: cats have nine lives. She tells Freddy he doesn’t need to worry about Zook because he has only used four of his nine lives. Freddy, at age five, wholeheartedly believes Oona in a very literal sense. As Oona’s family continues to navigate the real-life challenges of her father’s death and Zook’s illness, Oona also weaves in stories of Zook’s past lives to entertain and amuse Freddy.
Although Oona is several years older than Freddy, she is still a child–not yet thirteen–and she understandably misses her father, resents the kind man who seems to be spending a lot of time with her mother and is terrified of losing someone else she loves when Zook has to stay at the vet’s for several days. Oona’s voice is achingly genuine. Her reasoning and her insights are exactly those of a pre-teen girl grappling with difficult events and the emotions that go with them. When she and Freddy plot to kidnap Zook from the vet’s, her description of their reunion with Zook will resonate in the heart of everyone who has ever loved a pet:
We will never, ever be done hugging Zook. I bury my nose in his fur, smelling that alcohol-banana smell. Freddy strokes his nose. Right now there’s no other sound in the room except for Zook’s purr. It’s like a song I love that I haven’t heard in a while, even more beautiful than ever.
Because Oona is young, her plans are also somewhat unrealistic and the escape with Zook fails when the staff at the vet’s office realize what Oona is attempting to do and call her mother. Oona’s description of the car ride home with her mother following the incident is another example of Ms. Rocklin’s uncanny ability to believably speak the thoughts of any middle-school child who has been caught doing something she knew was wrong and for which she knows there are unpleasant consequences in her near future:
I can hear Mom’s silence. Silence has a sound–ever notice? Mom’s silence sounds like a drum. THUMPA-THUMPA-THUMPITY-THUMPA. You can really hear it if you’re in big trouble in the backseat of her car.
The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook is a gently humorous and compassionate read-aloud for upper elementary classrooms–or as a home reading choice for ages 8-12–always depending on the individual maturity of the specific child. Zook, ultimately, leads the reader expertly along Oona’s journey to understand and accept loss while still allowing herself to embrace new joys. Oona’s consideration of the possibility that these new joys honor those she has loved and lost rather than betray them is a central truth in life–one that does us all good to hear and re-visit. Ms. Rocklin’s ability to weave the creation of story into that truth deepens the value of Oona’s story and opens the possibility of creating stories to work through their own thoughts and feelings to young readers.